Monday, September 04, 2006

John Cage and Gertrude Stein:   American literature as Buddhism

The following repreduces my comment on Ian Keenan's blog. (It seemed worth pulling up into a post all its own.)

really glad you linked to this [John Cage's Indeterminacy] -- I was unaware of the collection being available, and for that matter hadn't seen it in print either (though the style of story seems akin to other things heard from Cage on occasion); the collection is wonderful. [on 2nd thought, I likely took in a few of these stories from the Folkways recording via Peter Greenaway's film, years ago.] I've now alredy ripped off the blog-a-Cage-story idea once and am apt to do so some more.

But it's not clear to me that it's these stories that Andy had in mind vis-a-vis vispo a la Cage. The background notes about Indetermincy make clear the spacing on the page was conceived as in the manner of a musical score. Each story was to be read over the span of 60 seconds. One page equals 60 seconds. If there are more words, they're denser; if there are fewer words, they're spaced apart more. That's not to say there's not perhaps some artful or mildly expressive aspect to the specifics of spacing; but seemingly, it was "utilitarian" in inspiration: a way of allowing the writer/reader to perform the work in a desired fashion.

It has a neat effect, certainly so in web presentation, anyway. But the tales themselves are almost incomparably laconic. I would unhesitatingly call it a singular classic of 20th Century American literature. It could even be placed at the other end of the shelf with Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans (written 1906-1908, published 1925, says the Wikipedia) -- the Cage work terse, the Stein work most prolix, both exemplifying (in differing ways) the juncture between American English and what (for lack of any more particular word) we can call Buddhism. (The repetitive-trance-style of Stein's magnum opus anyway has seemed to me reminiscent in form and effect to that of repetitive Mahayana classics such as are found in the Perfection of Wisdom [Prajnaparamita] literature.)

hmm, Edmund Wilson's remark (in 1931) about Stein is rather nice:
Most of us balk at her soporific rigmaroles, her echolaliac incantations, her half-witted-sounding catalogues on numbers; most of us read her less and less. Yet, remembering especially her early work, we are still always aware of her presence in the background of contemporary literature— and we picture her as the great pyramidal Buddha of Jo Davidson's statue of her, eternally and placidly ruminating the gradual developments of the process of being, registering the vibrations of a psychological country like some august human seismograph whose charts we haven't the training to read.
And Elizabeth Hardwick (in 1987) made a good observation:
Gertrude Stein, all courage and will, is a soldier of minimalism. Her work, unlike the resonating silences in the art of Samuel Beckett, embodies in its loquacity and verbosity the curious paradox of the minimalist form. This art of the nuance in repetition and placement she shares with the orchestral compositions of Philip Glass.
[both from Wikiquote Stein page]


Regarding visual poetry -- see also the historical gallery at

Regarding Gertrude Stein -- see also online works at the Electronic Poetry Center


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